Soaking in, and getting soaked by,
magestic Victoria Falls
After visiting Botswana, the final stop on the first leg of the safari was Victoria Falls. The safari I booked was 32 days long which is longer than most people can spare for a vacation, so at Vic Falls we dropped off most of the crew and picked up new passengers for the rest of the journey. At the time I visited, June of 2017, it was a tough time for Zimbabwe with high levels of political unrest and terrible inflation. The country all but abandoned its currency in favor of USD because the ZWD was nearly valueless. You could buy a trillion-ZWD bill from any street vendor for $1 and they're still making a profit. The US government doesn't provide aid to Zimbabwe because they did not support Mugabe's party, and as a result there were massive cash shortages. Even in touristic Vic Falls, people lined up at the bank for hours awaiting the weekly USD delivery but most walked away empty-handed.
It was a dangerous time to be in Zim but not dangerous to be in Vic Falls. The hotels, restaurants, tour agencies, and shops surrounding the falls are a vital source of revenue and USD and the government and citizens alike will do anything to preserve the tourism here. I was much more worried about the baboons than I was anything else, and unfortunately I was right to worry! A horde of baboons attacked a 72-year old woman in our safari group on her way out of the falls.
I was camping on the Zimbabwe side of the falls, which has a much more vibrant downtown than the Zambia side. In the town, I had my choice between upscale and local Zim food, lots of boutiques and art stores, a few cool bars with live music, and lots and lots of souvenir shops. The town is very walkable and you'd never need a taxi. The Zim side also has a more developed park for the falls, complete with nearly two kilometers of walking paths and viewpoints.
No matter how many times you see Victoria Falls, every moment will leave you with your mouth agape. Behold the sheer power of the thundering white water barreling off the cliff with reckless abandon. I've never seen anything match Vic Falls in scale or beauty. In addition to the lush greenery hugging the falls like a bodysuit, vibrant shimmering rainbows kiss the landscape nearly everywhere you turn.
The water falls with such force that once it smashes into the river 80 meters below, a lot of it comes soaring right back up to fall on sun-baked tourists like a heavy rain. You must plan ahead and bring a raincoat and leave all valuables behind because you will get completely soaked. My raincoat didn't end up helping much but the sun dried me most of the way through even before I sat down to lunch. I dined at Wild Horizon's Lookout Cafe where the food is good and the sweeping views of the Zambezi are phenomenal. And by Zambezi, I mean the river, not the beer! In the photo below, you might notice the cables where tourists can zipline over the valley. Behind that, you'll see the foot bridge connecting Zimbabwe, left, and Zambia, right.
Next, I walked over the bridge separating the two countries. This is where I saw all the baboons running rampant, and thankfully they stayed away! Victoria Falls Bridge is not very long and it's not used for transit, as the nearest hotel on each side is at least a kilometer away. You do need your passport to enter or exit the bridge, although you don't get a stamp every time. Instead, they hand you a small card that lets you cross into the other country and back within 24-hours. On one side of the bridge, you'll see something like the photo above, and the other gives you a little peek at the thundering falls. It's nice to sit up there basking in the natural beauty from a high vantage point, or watch the rafters float by and the giddy bungee jumpers take off.
One of the coolest and most adventurous activities I did on my whole trip took place at Vic Falls. You may have heard of Devil's Pool, a swimming area at the top of the falls, that's only open in dry season when the water is much less rapid and less dangerous. The pool actually is only visible during a short window of time around December. I visited very much in the wet season, as evidenced by the raging water in these photos, and unfortunately the Devil's Pool was not open. I was bummed because this was something I'd been looking forward to all year, a bucket list item if you will. The hotel mentioned that I could see Angel's Pool instead, which provides a similar experience at the top of the falls. Unlike the other, you cannot freely swim in Angel's Pool because the water is too forceful. Still, I was eager for the experience and decided to book the trip.
A car picked me up in Zimbabwe and brought me to the most gorgeous hotel in Zambia. The Royal Livingstone hotel is a lavish resort situated right on the Zambezi and it holds a monopoly on trips to Livingstone Island and Angel's Pool. It's steeped in rich history; for example, it's where Elizabeth was when she discovered that her father had passed away and she was to be crowned Queen of England. From the patio, I enjoyed an Americano while a swimming hippo snorted loudly below me. The mist from the falls sparkled and the roar of churning water below was reduced to subtle white noise. It was the most peaceful of mornings.
A small boat took six of us to Livingstone Island, a small uninhabited piece of land at the edge of the falls. We changed into our bathing suits and were outfitted with a poncho for our tour of the island. As we walked closer to the edge, the roar of the falls was deafening. The "rain" that had soaked me the day before was much stronger and chilled me to the bone. The tour guide probably told us a lot of history about the falls but I could barely hear him above the noise of the falls and my chattering teeth! As we approached Angel's Pool, I could see that there were a series of ropes attached to the rocks outlining where we should step. One guide jumped into the water to help us as we walked so we didn't slip and tumble over the side, and one filmed from the island. I wasn't nervous at all- it didn't look like I was that close to the edge and it seemed easy enough to follow the path. (As I look back at the footage, I can clearly see that I was right on the edge!) There were ropes to help, and the guides were leaping around like they were climbing on a jungle gym. I was ready to get in the water.
As soon as I stepped in, I slipped on a rock. It was a little slip, and I was still holding the guide's hand so I didn't really fall. That's when I knew I really had to be careful. I have a tendency to minimize dangerous activities; my theory is that if people are allowed to do it, then it must be reasonably safe. In this case, if I hadn't been holding onto something, I probably would have tumbled right off the cliff. In addition to the slick rocks, the water was a lot stronger than it looked. I had to take strong, confident steps and brace my legs constantly against the unrelenting Zambezi pushing past me on its commute down below. I was so focused on maneuvering that I only really registered the experience when I perched on a rock and looked out.
It was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life. I don't think there are many other ways I can feel more alive than when I sat on a rock in the middle of millions of gallons of rushing water overlooking a vast canyon sprinkled with evanescent rainbows. I guess I was only in the water for around five minutes but it felt like an hour of thrilling magnificence. After I got out, I wrapped myself in a few towels and changed for brunch. The hotel has set up a nice dining room and kitchen on the island and I enjoyed coffee, pastries, and eggs Benedict with a view of the falls. You simply cannot ask for a better morning than that.